I’ve seen images of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt used as a political cartoon. But surely the Bible is more than a cheap political statement? Surely there’s a deeper meaning?
I’ve seen the image (above) used by various people on social media to make a statement about immigration policies here in the United States.
This image, and others like it, depicts the Holy Family (the Virgin Mary, her husband Joseph, and, sometimes, the infant Jesus) either on their way to Bethlehem where they don’t have a place to stay, or fleeing to Egypt for fear of their lives from King Herod.
The political message is pretty clear. Countries should have an inviting policy towards immigrants because even the Son of God and his parents were once refugees.
I don’t want this post to be political, so I’m not going to comment on scripture and whether it has anything to say about current U.S. policy.
However, I do want the raise a question about the image, or rather the story about the flight to Egypt.
Within context, how is the story used? What’s its meaning? Is it really an image of refugees and immigrants?
Let’s dig in.
The story originally appears in the Gospel of Matthew.
Now when they [the wise men or magi] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Matthew 2:13-15 RSV)
What you have to know about the Gospel of Matthew is that it is a patterned on the story of the Hebrews, the people who become the nation of Israel, which is told in the first few books of the Bible.
Let me summarize.
The Bible begins with creation but soon goes on to tell the story of the great Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (and their families).
The story of Joseph is about how he was sold into slavery by his brothers. Despite this, he soon becomes second in command of Egypt. When a famine strikes the land, Joseph is able to use his influence to provide food for his family, despite their past transgression. It ends with the Hebrews (Jacob and all his sons and their families) permanently moving to Egypt in order to escape the famine.
Over a few generations, the Egyptians forget about Joseph his family and they end up enslaving the Hebrews.
God, of course, raises up the Prophet Moses who then leads the people across the Red Sea, where they receive the Law, and wander 40 years in the desert before entering the Promised Land (Exodus). Moses’s last act is to tell the people about God’s blessings if they have faith in Him and follow his statutes (Deuteronomy 28:1-14), and God’s curses if they forget Him (Deuteronomy 28:15-67).
Notice the pattern of the story: creation, a journey down into Egypt, the Exodus through the Red Sea, the receiving of the Law, and the blessings and curses.
MATTHEW FOLLOWS THE SAME STORY
Jesus’s life, as told by Matthew, follows this same pattern.
Christ is born (creation) and soon finds himself in Egypt. Before entering into his ministry (a Promised Land, if you will) he passes through the Jordan River via baptism (akin to the Red Sea) and wanders in the desert being tempted for 40 days (instead of years).
After his desert experience, he goes up the mount to give a new law (like Moses on Sinai) and blessings (the Beatitudes). Then, at the end of Matthew, like Moses, Jesus gives the woes, or curses.
In other words, the Old Testament story, especially the flight into Egypt and the creation of the nation of Israel, is now retold, but it’s centered on the Messiah, Jesus.
Israel’s story is summed up (recapitulated, as the theologians say) in the Messiah, which means the story of Jesus is the story of how God acts to recreate all people (not just the Hebrews) as His people, a new Israel that’s not limited to a specific ethnicity.
Everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of the Messiah has become a new creation, an adopted son of God, an Israelite whose heart has been circumcised (Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 31:31-34).
And Matthew gets this point across by telling the Jesus story in a way that reminds us of the story of Israel in the Old Testament.
So, with all this out of the way, what does this have to do with the story of the Holy Family going down into Egypt?
Well, I believe that if we understand the Old Testament flight into Egypt (with Joseph), as well as the Exodus, it will give us insight into how and why Matthew uses this image.
Our first insight comes from Joseph’s encounter with his brothers, the same ones who sold him into Egypt.
So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, I pray you.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:4-8 RSV)
Though it seems disastrous that Joseph was sold into Egypt by his brothers, there was much more going on. Through Joseph’s slavery, he was able to save his family and set the stage for a much bigger event: the Exodus and creation of Israel.
This long-suffering served a much bigger purpose: a revelation of God’s caring providence.
The Psalmist seems to confirm that the descent into Egypt was about the far-reaching plan of salvation.
O give thanks to the LORD, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples! … Remember the wonderful works that he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered, … When he summoned a famine on the land, and broke every staff of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. … Then Israel came to Egypt; Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham. And the LORD made his people very fruitful, and made them stronger than their foes. … So he led forth his people with joy, his chosen ones with singing. And he gave them the lands of the nations; and they took possession of the fruit of the peoples’ toil, to the end that they should keep his statutes, and observe his laws. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 105:1, 5, 16-17, 23-24, 43-45 RSV)
It would make sense, then, that Matthew would draw on this theme. He is setting the stage to introduce the savior of the world to his reader and show the fulfillment prophecy: “Out of Egypt, I have called my son” (Matthew 2:15, citing Hosea 11:1).
Matthew’s intent wasn’t to make a comment on how governments should or shouldn’t treat immigrants, but rather to show how God works in mysterious ways… ways that may seem tragic at first, but, in the end, lead to salvation.
DO OTHERS AGREE?
St. John Chrysostom, commenting in the early 5th century, has this to say about Matthew’s story of the Holy Family flight to Egypt:
This Man who was crucified – was he not from his birth an exile, a fugitive, and did he not have to flee with his whole family into exile in a foreign, barbarous land when he was scarcely out of his swaddling bands? And torrents of blood resulted from the event of Christ’s flight [into Egypt], and cruel murders, and slaughters; and those of tender age, just as if they had been arrayed in a battle or war, were cut to pieces, the suckling children torn from their mothers’ breasts and delivered to the slaughter, and with milk still in their mouths their necks were driven through by the sword.
What could be more horrendous than this tragedy? These things were done by the one seeking to destroy Jesus, and the long-suffering God bore this most insufferable tragedy, with its massive bloodshed even though he could have prevented it, thus showing forth his great long-suffering for some inscrutable wise purpose
…Therefore, if you wish now to reckon up the pleasant things along with those that are sorrowful, you will see that many events have happened which, if not signs and wonders, still resemble signs, and are ineffable proofs of the great providence of God and his solicitude. (St. John Chrysostom, Letters to Saint Olympia translated by David C. Ford [Crestwood: SVS Press, 2016] pp. 50, 56.)
Recently, it has been popular to use the story and images of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt as a political statement about refugees and immigrants.
When used in this manner, it’s a tool – or perhaps a weapon – to shame others into compliance with your own political views.
However, Matthew uses the story in a much different way. He uses it as an image to invoke the original flight into Egypt and the subsequent Exodus.
Used in this manner, it’s an image that shows that God can, and does, work through our suffering. Though tragedy happens, God can, and will, use it by turning that catastrophe into a means of redemption and salvation.
In short, the flight into Egypt is not a model for immigration policy, but an image of hope. It’s image for us to reflect and meditate on to see past our own suffering… to see God’s great providence, to see our own salvation.
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